Sermon Notes - Shavuot 2012

Revelation, Multiplicity and Receiving the Torah

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

Shavuot is light on ritual but affords a weighty unique opportunity in our annual festival cycle to consider how a modern community understands its relationship with the Torah and Judaism itself.

The Talmud[1] mentions a perplexing aspect of the Torah system – the existence within it of conflicting views on almost every topic.  How, asks Rebbi Ela’zar ben Azariah, can a single Torah include ‘those who forbid, those who permit, those who invalidate and those who sanction’?  This question uncannily presages a modern frustration with Judaism – why can’t the rabbis agree with each other?  Rebbi El’azar offers a fascinating allegorical response – ‘make your ear into a funnel and acquire an understanding heart for yourself’[2] to accept what may be the most difficult facet of the Torah – its multiplicity.  A full and sophisticated understanding of revelation involves accepting that divergent, even conflicting, views can co-exist within a single revelation.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the Kotzker Rebbe, asks why the festival liturgy describes Shavuot as the time of the ‘giving of our Torah’ rather than the time of the ‘receiving of our Torah’.  He answers that only the giving is universal, hence its inclusion in a communal prayer; the receiving of the Torah, however, is an individual experience – the divine perceived through the lens of one’s own vision and perspective.  And while, of course, the Torah is not infinitely elastic, the voice of God is certainly heard differently by each of us.  It is only this that enables members of a modern and diverse community to be transformed by an ancient revelation, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, the mundane into the inspirational.

Professor A.J. Heschel notes that ‘A Jew without the Torah is obsolete’.[3]  It is neither synagogue attendance nor even observance which guarantee that our Jewish lives remain vibrant and future-proof, but Torah.  Yet Heschel points out that revelation must also instil ‘a new creative moment into the course of natural events’.[4]  Shavuot is not just the anniversary of Sinai; it is also the time of year at which we should affirm our belief that only an authentic, multi-chromatic Torah will be relevant for those grappling with the voice of the divine.

Respect for a range of equally authentic positions lies at the core of our approach to Judaism.  When the Talmud allegorises the ultimate reward of the righteous, it describes a ‘dance circle’ in the Garden of Eden: God ‘sits’ in the centre while the righteous dance around Him ‘pointing’ in His direction.[5]  A circle is a collection of points equidistant from a single locus; each dancer occupies a different position from the others, but all are equidistant from God.  The righteous perceive God at close quarters, while simultaneously authenticating the approaches of others.  And, of course, the righteous are not stationary – instead, they move around the circle, enjoying not just their own view of the divine, experiencing and celebrating the perspectives of each of the other dancers.



[1] TB Chagigah 3b

[2] Ibid.

[3] A Preface to the Understanding of Revelation

[4] The Moment at Sinai

[5] TB Ta’anit 31a

The Orthodox Family of the 21st Century: A Symposium

Jewish Action: The Magazine of the Orthodox Union (USA)

Spring 2012

My contribution follows; full article here

While statistics are not available, it seems that there is a dramatic increase in divorce in the Orthodox community, particularly among young people. Why do you think this is so? What can be done?

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski

It is easy to blame the zeitgeist for the growing divorce problem. We inhabit a responsibility-adverse, “throw-away” society, one which discourages people from dedicating themselves to long-term relationships and from remaining committed to them when problems arise. And while increased acceptance of divorce has its positive sides, it also deters couples from working on their marriages when the going gets tough. Combined with a predominantly casual attitude toward sexuality and palpable scorn for stable, “boring” monogamy, contemporary society offers a toxic milieu within which it is challenging to maintain even robust marriages.

Yet over-focusing on the influence of secular mores prevents us from identifying and addressing causes of marital discord that originate from within the Orthodox world.

There are positive aspects of the “shidduch system,” yet its misuses contribute to poor relationships and early breakups. Unfortunately, some parents seem to view a shidduch not only as an attempt to find a lasting, happy match for their offspring, but also as an opportunity for social and economic advancement. Often in collusion with their children, they judge a potential mate based on genealogical, financial and even sartorial or other superficial criteria, instead of focusing on core qualities such as stability, personal happiness, commitment-capability, honesty and character refinement. While of course everyone pays lip-service to the importance of these qualities, in reality they are commonly overlooked in favor of a “good catch”—a shidduch that meets the approval of their peers. The solution is obvious, but hard to implement as it involves a paradigm shift at a number of levels. Educating our young people about real relationships would be a good start.

Furthermore, many couples date too few times prior to getting engaged. Most people cannot make a competent decision about whether they wish to share every aspect of their lives with a prospective spouse without spending extended periods together in a variety of settings. People and their lives are complex; “unpacking” them takes time and cannot be rushed. Yet social expectations and pressure from parents or shadchanim may drive a young couple to decide quickly, frequently leaving a whole raft of issues undiscussed, personality traits unexplored and behavior-patterns undiscovered—all “time-bombs” that can, and sadly often do, detonate later on and destroy the marriage. And while I understand the genuine religious and other concerns that motivate the desire to “get it over with quickly,” they must be resisted if we are to prevent many quite unnecessary breakdowns and their attendant long-term misery.

And speaking of potential “time-bombs,” numerous young people plunge into marriage despite unresolved emotional, sexual, familial and religious hang-ups. Some are cognizant of these issues but date anyway because of social pressures. Others imagine that marriage will solve their problems; yet others are blissfully unaware of them even though they may be painfully evident to others. This is a recipe for disaster, since inevitably these issues will surface and destructively affect the marriage. And even if the union survives, it is certain to be rocky and challenging. Again, the solution is obvious: sort out your problems before getting married and remember that while singlehood can be painful, being trapped in a bad marriage is always worse. Marriage never solves these problems. Yet the stigma associated with mental health and other personal problems and the pressure felt by parents to get their children “married off” young often prevail.

Other causes of divorce not confined to the Orthodox community yet prevalent within it include: poor communication; lack of those who “role-model” functional, happy relationships; unwelcome family pressure to conform or perform; absurd expectations in terms of personal happiness and finances. The latter is especially acute in those parts of the community where couples expect to marry young, have large families, live in an expensive middle-class neighborhood and pay crippling tuitions, yet remain students well beyond marriage with often weak earning-potential. These pressures can destroy even the healthiest relationships.

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski is the rabbi of the Golders Green Synagogue in London. He earned a PhD from the University of London on the topic of Chassidic hermeneutics, and is the author of several books.

To hear an interview with Rabbi Belovski, please visit Savitsky Talks at http://www.ou.org/life/relationships/dating/why-are-more-orthodox-couples-getting-divorced/. Savitsky Talks is a weekly twenty-minute audio program exploring topics in Jewish Action and other topics in contemporary Jewish life.

Sermon Notes 25/02/12 - Terumah

Celebrating Volunteering in our Community

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

This Shabbat we celebrate the immense contribution of our volunteers.  No community can function without those who give so generously of their time and expertise and we are especially blessed.  I think it’s vital that once in a while we thank them; they should never be taken for granted.

This week’s parashah is perfect for discussing this topic.  It begins with the call for donations to the Mishkan:

דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו תקחו את תרומתי

Speak to the Children of Israel and have them take an offering for Me; from everyone whose heart motivates him, you shall take My offering. (Shemot 25:2)

The rabbis explain that the offerings needed to be voluntary and given with a full heart.  There are basic responsibilities – other offerings were obligatory – a kind of taxation, but when it comes to building the Mishkan, the donation had to be freely given.  Our volunteers don’t do things grudgingly, but freely give of their time with love and devotion.

The Mishnah in Avot notes that the world exists on three pillars – Torah, divine service or prayer and acts of kindness.  They are equated – the entire edifice of community is dependent on these three.  This is something that the Charedi communities do extremely well – creating huge networks of people, gemachim, and support projects to deliver voluntary services to people in their communities and beyond.   In Charedi communities, there is a real sense that one’s contribution is vital and that even if there are lots of Torah students, volunteers, or whatever, one’s own contribution is indispensible.  We are quite good at this but we still have much to learn.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the late-19th-century founder of the Musar movement was once approached by someone who claimed that he only had one hour a week available what to study during that hour.  Rabbi Yisrael replied that he should learn Musar, because that would enable him to realise that he actually had more than one hour free!

This sentiment applies to volunteering too.  I suspect that many people feel that they either have no time or are not well-suited to volunteering.  This is rarely true; adapting Rabbi Yisrael’s advice – if you were to meet our volunteers, and those who benefit from their involvement and you’ll discover quickly how you really want to volunteer and how much time you can make available.

One other point – while of course, volunteering enables the community to run smoothly, to provide services that might not otherwise be available and to assist individuals, anyone who does volunteer or is engaged in any other type of chessed will tell you another side of the experience – they gain at least as much themselves as the recipient from the experience of volunteering.  Conceptually, this is no surprise: the act of giving is itself something godly: Jewish life is guided by the principle that we 'walk in God’s path' by emulating Him.  Since God is the giver and we are the recipients, altruistic acts replicate the divine model, bringing godliness and satisfaction to those who perform them.

On behalf of everyone in the community, may you be blessed with success, good health and continue to inspire me and others.

Sermon Notes 18/02/12 - Mishpatim

An Eye for an Eye: Literalism and Traditionalism

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

Following the account of the Sinaitic theophany in last week’s parashah, one would have expected the text to describe the construction of the Mishkan, moving from the revelation to the means (the Mishkan) to keep it fresh in the minds of the Israelites.  Instead, the narrative is broken up by the Mishpatim, laws mostly governing interpersonal conduct.  Rav Soloveitchik points out that this interruption conveys an important message – sensitive, honest behaviour lies at the very heart of Jewish life; one cannot even contemplate building the sanctuary without first accepting the Mishpatim.

Rabbi Yishmael notes that ‘one who wishes to become wise should study the financial laws, for there is no greater Torah topic; they like an overflowing spring’. (Mishnah Bava Batra 10:8)  It remains customary for a child’s first tractate to be one dealing with financial responsibility, not ritual law.  These rules hone the intellect and ensure that honesty and care with the resources of others is absorbed by children from an early age.

The most well-known verses in this section describe what is known as lex talionis – the law of retaliation: ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound’. (Shemot 21: 24-5)  For centuries, Jews were maltreated on the basis of a literal reading of these words, which assumes that we are revengeful, hateful people, whose law requires us to exact awful punishment from wrongdoers.  Yet the Talmud insists that the text actually refers to compensation for the lost limb (Bava Kama 84a); indeed, this has always been the approach of applied Jewish law.

As expected, Rashi cites the Talmud’s approach.  More startlingly, his grandson, Rashbam, known for his enthusiasm for the plain meaning of the text, also follows this view: in his critical notes to Rashbam, Professor Martin Lokshin observes that ‘Rashbam accepts the traditional reading of the text’.

In the 19th century, the validity of this interpretation was threatened by biblical criticism and a growing rejection of the authenticity of the Oral Tradition.  In response, commentators such as Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Meklenberg (HaKetav VeHaKabbalah) and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch sought to defend the traditional picture.  In what amounts to rather deft interpretative apologetics, each explains that the verse actually refers to compensation – i.e. the text means not ‘an eye for an eye’, but should be translated as ‘compensation for an eye for an eye’.  Meklenberg explains that in context, this is the only credible reading, whereas Hirsch demonstrates that the word תחת – usually translated as ‘for’, actually means ‘compensation for’.

Yet these readings leave a very obvious question – if the Torah means compensation, why does it seem to refer to retaliation?  An unambiguous text would certainly have prevented much misunderstanding and a great deal of persecution.  Is it possible to reconcile the literal meaning of the text with the traditional interpretation?

Seforno, writing around 1500, does just this.  For him, the text describes a theoretical ideal – in a perfect universe, the perpetrator of an injury should personally experience the precise consequences of his or her actions – in this case, the loss of the limb of which the victim has been deprived.  Yet the traditional reading recognises the reality that this cannot, in fact, may not, reflect actual practice, for various practical and ethical reasons.  As such, it is not necessary to distort the plain meaning of the words, which do in fact refer to retaliation; the traditional reading is not a translation of the words, but an interpretation, albeit one that represents the only valid practical application of the Torah’s law.  Indeed, it reflects the will of the divine within the confines of an imperfect world, beautifully harmonising the ‘real’ meaning of the text with an age-old interpretation.